Op-ed column: What is justice worth?

As the wife of an elected county court judge and appointed acting supreme court justice, I feel comp
Mark Wilson/For The Sunday Gazette
Mark Wilson/For The Sunday Gazette

As the wife of an elected county court judge and appointed acting supreme court justice, I feel compelled to write in response to the issue of raises for state judges.

My husband is responsible for dealing with not only the most serious felony charges, including rape, robbery and murder, but also the full range of civil cases, from matrimonial to medical malpractice to land use and contracts.

He prepared for this responsibility by obtaining a first-rate education. He then spent 25 years as a trial attorney, including five years as an Army JAG officer (one of those years was spent in Vietnam) and 20 years as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. He has been a public servant for his entire professional life — and proud of it! He could have, and still could, make a lot of money in private practice, but he loves the job he does now and, based upon everything I have heard, the people love the good service he has given them.

Outrageous idea

An April 6 Viewpoint article (“Where’s the judicial restraint?” by Daniel T. Weaver) suggested the state’s chief judge — and judges like my husband — are greedy or “shameful” for wanting to be appropriately compensated for the difficult work they do on behalf of the people.

No one expects to become wealthy in public service, but to suggest that the judges should remain the only “employees” in New York not to receive even a cost-of-living increase, much less a raise, in 10 years is outrageous. Are you paid what you were paid 10 years ago, to the penny? I doubt it. Do you know a single teacher, bus driver, clerk or garbage man who is paid the same in 2008 as they were in 1999? I don’t think so!

And Weaver suggests that judges send their kids to Ivy League schools while New Yorkers less “fortunate” send theirs to a state college? Both of our daughters went to a local college, one of them spending two years at a community college before that. Both lived at home because we couldn’t afford to send them to fancy schools or even have them board at a small private college.

While this is supposed to be a tough budget year in Albany, the new budget going through is almost 5 percent larger than last year’s. Unbelievably, it includes $94 million in new money for parks and $200 million in pork barrel spending!

So please spare us the tight budget and talk of recession to justify balancing the budget on the backs of the judges and their families. (By the way, what recession? Unemployment is still at 5.1 percent — almost an historical low — and not a single quarter has gone by in the red. More media nonsense!)

There have been several years over the last 10 years when there was ample money available in the budget and, at times, even appropriated for judges. Those monies, however, were held hostage by a dysfunctional Legislature and a horse-trading governor, all of whom seem to have forgotten what good government should be.

This isn’t the way to treat the third, and co-equal, branch of government. It’s a travesty and a violation of the separation of powers doctrine.

Judges underpaid

The bottom line is, as virtually every editorial writer in New York has opined, as Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts (whose federal trial judges are paid $169,000 a year and are on their way to $220,000 a year) has indicated, judges are woefully underpaid for the job they do and the responsibilities they have. If you are content to have second-class judges, then continue to pay second-class professional wages. If you are content to have a situation in which a first-year attorney in a large law firm is paid more than the chief judge of New York, then continue on the present course.

If so, I hope your son, daughter or someone else close doesn’t need to seek refuge in our courts for the justice they deserve as citizens in a state that relies on second-class justice from a second-class judge.

Mr. Weaver, we are all entitled to our opinions. On this subject, you are misinformed and ignorant of the facts. Your column, and your gratuitous attack on the chief judge and on our hard-working judges, was a disgrace.

Barbara N. Dolan lives in Wappinger Falls. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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